Mayank Bhatt signs books after a reading of his debut novel “Belief” at the Heath St. W. condo building where he once worked as a security guard. It was a warm homecoming for the new author, whose novel is being formally launched on Tuesday at the Gladstone Hotel. (COLE BURSTON / FOR THE TORONTO STAR)
The last time Mayank Bhatt was in this Forest Hill condo building he wore a navy blue uniform and worked as a security guard.
It was one of the new immigrant’s first jobs in Canada, a position the Mumbai native landed just weeks after arriving at Pearson International Airport with his wife, Mahrukh, and son, Che.
Seven years after he left that job, Bhatt, 54, recently returned to the warm embrace of the tenants he used to serve at 260 Heath St. W., but this time as a published author invited for a reading of his debut novel, Belief — the story of a new immigrant family’s struggles in Canada. The book will be officially launched at the Gladstone Hotel on Tuesday evening.
“I wanted to read at this condo building. I came to Canada not knowing anyone. I was a complete stranger and they welcomed me. My new life started here. The residents in this building were the first set of people who made life possible for me and my family,” said Bhatt, his voice choked with emotion.
“My idea was not to come to Canada to become a security guard. I wanted to come back to show what I have become today, that I’ve lived up to that expectation. This is a bit of a homecoming for me.”
The Heath St. condo was also an apt venue for the occasion because this is where Bhatt first conceived of the idea for his book and started crafting the story while working the graveyard shift guarding the building and protecting its residents.
“I had nothing else to do. You read but you need to do something else” to keep yourself occupied and engaged, said Bhatt, 54, a former journalist who had also previously worked as a media adviser and trade officer for the U.S. Consulate in Mumbai.
It wasn’t a straight path for him from doing survival jobs to getting his work published; he still works full time to support his family, now as a marketing and administration co-ordinator at Simmons da Silva LLP, a Toronto law firm.
Upon his arrival in Canada, Bhatt took a one-year journalism program at Sheridan College, while working as a security guard, with the hopes of getting back into his profession. But it was a tough task, with every door closed to him despite delivering more than 500 resumés to prospective employers.
Finally, in 2009, he met someone from Mumbai who tipped him off to an opening at the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce, where he eventually landed an office job.
At that point, Bhatt had already completed a short story — which would become the first chapter of his future book — and showed it to some of the residents at 260 Heath. One of them urged him to submit it to the Diaspora Dialogue, a mentoring program that matches up immigrant writers with established Canadian authors.
Tenant Myrna Freedman said she was impressed by Bhatt’s intelligence, command of English, gentlemanly demeanour and how well-read he was when she first met him on the job. To see him become a published writer in such a short span of time “is just wonderful,” said the retired high school English teacher.
“I’m so proud of him and so impressed that his book is carried by Indigo and Amazon. They just don’t take any book.”
Bhatt worked under the wing of award-winning writer M.G. Vassanji for three months. The experience inspired him to enroll in a creative writing course at Humber College in 2010.
For years now, Bhatt gets up at 4:30 a.m. and writes for two hours before he leaves for work. On weekends, he spends eight hours in front of his computer, writing. He wrote and revised his novel countless times before taking it to publishers.
Getting one’s writing published is hard, but it’s even harder for newcomers who lack the professional and social networks to get a foot in the door. For two years, Bhatt tried in vain to find a publisher. No one even bothered to respond — until he took his manuscript to Mawenzi House.
Belief — which covers the nuanced journey of an immigrant family in Canada and the issue of radicalization — came out in September and has already garnered a favourable review in Quill & Quirefavourable review in Quill & Quire, the reputable literary magazine.
“Bhatt’s illuminating, plain-spoken novel could be instrumental in generating substantive discussion about the immigrant experience in a country that is still a long way from understanding what that really entails,” the review says.
David Raymont, a tenant of 260 Heath, said the subject of Bhatt’s book is timely in the current global context.
“This is a very important topic that needs to be discussed. I hope his book can help encourage discussion and create more understanding between communities,” noted Raymont,
Bhatt made it clear the novel is by no means a reflection of his personal life but it does capture the observations he has made of other newcomers he’s come across.
“On one level, Canada welcomes everyone here with the opportunity to grow and prosper, but on another level, there is a lack of cultural acceptance,” Bhatt said. “People do not accept you for who you are and you have to constantly prove yourself.”
That was always what motivated Bhatt to get his book published. “I had to prove to others that I can do this. When you take up something you want to do in Canada, it’s not going to be easy, but you just can’t give up.”
Novelist Mayank Bhatt, who immigrated to Canada from Mumbai in 2008, delivers a taut, timely debut focused on one immigrant family and the devastating experience that threatens to destroy the life they have struggled to build in their new country.
Having left their home in the 1990s to escape recurrent violence between Hindus and Muslims, Abdul and Ruksana Latif and their two adult children, Ziram and Rafiq, find themselves “misfits in Canada as much as they had been, as Muslims, in India.” Nevertheless, by the fall of 2008, the Latifs are relatively settled, with a home they own and jobs that promise more than mere survival. The family’s comfortable existence is thrown into turmoil when it is revealed that Rafiq may be involved in a terrorist plot to blow up a number of locations in and around Toronto. Rafiq’s questionable treatment at the hands of the justice system, and the family’s fear regarding the potential repercussions from his alleged crime, illustrate their terribly vulnerable position in Canadian society.
In part, Belief may be read as a cautionary tale urging those with extremist leanings to “steer a calmer, more sober path.” But even more importantly, it reads as a message to mainstream Canada that the isolation and marginalization of the immigrant experience have the potential to result in unintended consequences when faced with individuals who “[don’t] know what one could do about an unjust system except fight it.”
At the novel’s end, the future for the Latifs is undetermined. It is clear that their lives have been irrevocably altered, though not entirely for the worse. Through the experience of arrest and interrogation, Rafiq is forced to re-evaluate his religious faith, as well as his understanding of his parents; in so doing, he gains a clearer perspective on the older generation’s struggles.
Bhatt’s illuminating, plain-spoken novel could be instrumental in generating substantive discussion about the immigrant experience in a country that is still a long way from understanding what that really entails.